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MCAS test has done nothing to improve school quality

Lisa Guisbond, Fairtest

Results from the new MCAS exam show that more than half of Massachusetts students scored below a new, arbitrary “meeting expectations” level in most grades and subjects. Disproportionately, these will be urban youth of color. Unfortunately, this will create more pressure to focus on increasing test scores, particularly at inner-city schools. That will inevitably narrow curriculum, take the joy out of learning and harm students.

State education officials say the new MCAS exam will tell parents whether their children are on track for success and ready for college. The new MCAS combines the national PARCC test with the old MCAS. But a 2015 Mathematica study commissioned by state Education Secretary James Peyser found that neither PARCC nor MCAS accurately measured college readiness. Scores accounted for only 5 percent to 18 percent of the variation in first-year college grades. There is no reason to believe MCAS 2 is any better at predicting future success.

Secretary Peyser and other education policymakers boast that Massachusetts students are first in the nation. That’s true. But it’s not true that Massachusetts’ schools rose from mediocrity to top-notch because of MCAS. Even before the high-stakes MCAS, Massachusetts students ranked at or near the top. There has been improvement, but that is because of greater spending and a funding formula aimed at creating equity between rich and poor districts.

Yet Peyser continues to pretend our test-driven system will do what it has failed to do in more than two decades: ensure no students are denied a good public education because of their zip code. African-American and Latino communities, English language learners and students with disabilities bear the brunt of the damage caused by our test-based accountability system. Test misuse has led to school takeovers, disruptive turnaround processes, closures and privatization.

For example, the Mattahunt was closed for poor test scores, over the passionate objections of the school community. (The low scores were largely due to testing children in English when they were just beginning to learn the language.) The community’s carefully considered and concrete proposals to improve the school were ignored.

Meanwhile, the state Foundation Budget Review Commission found our funding formula is out of date and inadequate. Massachusetts underfunds our schools by $2 billion a year. Too many Boston students see the results in large class sizes, lack of counselors and nurses, filthy bathrooms and more. So why are we adopting an expensive new exam indicating over half the students don’t “meet expectations” instead of marshalling and focusing resources and support on the schools and districts with the greatest needs?

Surveys show that most Americans think there is too much focus on standardized testing. A recent poll found “little support for standardized testing in contrast to the deep interest in testing by policy makers.” There is ample evidence that the overuse and misuse of standardized testing in recent decades has done real damage to educational quality and equity. It has narrowed and dumbed down curriculum and created an atmosphere of anxiety and fear that inhibits learning.

The Boston students we work with are all too aware of these problems. Why, then, are we adopting a new, harder exam that will exacerbate these problems, widen our already large test score gaps and increase the focus on narrow standardized tests?

Surveys of public attitudes toward education over time show a consensus about what we want our children to get out of school. I speak to different kinds of audiences, and I always ask what people want their children to get out of school. I get consistent answers: that they will make friends and learn how to get along with different kinds of people, that they will develop a lifelong love of learning and will learn how to collaborate, cooperate and resolve conflicts. Parents and community people want children to be exposed to art, music and literature and learn how to think critically about the great issues facing our communities and the world. No one ever says they send their child to school to learn how to take standardized tests in math and reading.

Isn’t it time we listen to 25 years of evidence showing that our test-based accountability system is perpetuating a “charade,” as Harvard Professor Daniel Koretz calls it? Isn’t it time we abandon the idea that we can test our way to quality and equity?

Instead of swapping one bad exam for another, now is the perfect time for Massachusetts to explore better alternatives to narrow standardized tests. We could implement an assessment system using projects and portfolios that measure deeper learning. Most important, communities must discuss what they want children to get from school so we can develop and use assessments and evaluations to achieve those ends.

Time for a new direction, not just a different test.